What Does Your Writing Celebrate?

Monday, August 3, 2015

Roland and I just returned from a European vacation. One of the places we visited was Nuremburg, Germany, where we took a tour of the major World War II historical sites. The picture above shows a typical Nazi building. The Nazis used classical Greek and Roman structures but without any ornamentation, and they made them larger than the buildings they were modeled after so they would be even more imposing. The purpose was to make people feel insignificant—the state was everything and the individual was nothing.
This particular building is now a “documentation center” showing the history of Hitler and the Nazi party. As our guide explained, it is not a “museum” because museums celebrate their subject matter and the center did not celebrate Hitler or the Nazis—quite the contrary. But Germany believes people should know the evil of history as well as the good.

After visiting the documentation center, we went to the Nuremburg courtroom where the Nazis were put on trial after the war ended. Although we didn’t have time to see it, the courthouse had a museum about the trial. The guide explained that it was a museum because it celebrated justice. True justice, that is, not the Nazi type of justice where you were presumed guilty and judged by a kangaroo court. There were even some acquittals among the Nuremburg defendants.

So what does this have to do with writing? It made me realize how important it is to ensure that fiction—and especially historical fiction—does not celebrate wrong. I’ve heard it said that every antagonist should have at least one likeable characteristic, and that may be true for individual human antagonists. But the historical setting can be an antagonist, too, and evil never has a positive side.

The distinction isn’t always easy, though. Take my recently completed middle-grade novel, Desert Jewels. There were some good things that came out of the Japanese incarceration. For example, Japanese high school students in California were integrated with Caucasians and other races, and they never got the chance to be sports stars or school leaders because those roles always went to the white students. In the camps, the Japanese American students came into their own because they didn’t have to compete with people who believed they were a “superior” race. It’s tempting to celebrate this outcome as a result of the incarceration, but that would turn an injustice into something good. It’s better to celebrate the spirit of the Japanese youths who took advantage of the opportunity when it came.

That may seem like a small distinction, but it’s an important one. And I hope it’s a lesson I never forget.

What about you?

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